- The Washington Times
Tuesday, September 20, 2022

Ahead of a new season, Tommy Sheppard referred to the past. The Wizards general manager thought back to the team’s five-game, first-round exit to the Philadelphia 76ers during the 2021 playoffs — and how so much has already changed since then.

Just five players from that Washington roster, he noted, remain. Only three of them played substantial minutes in the series. 

“Change is necessary when you’re not winning,” Sheppard said. 

The Wizards open training camp Saturday, coming off another offseason of shakeups and tweaks. Bradley Beal is back on a five-year, $251 million contract. But he has new playmakers around him in point guard Monte Morris and wing Will Barton. The Wizards also added another pair of veterans (guard Delon Wright, forward Taj Gibson) and drafted a rookie (Johnny Davis) they’re relatively high on. 

The changes come after an eventful year prior, during which Washington shipped out Russell Westbrook in a five-team trade before the season and was just as busy at the trade deadline. 

But amid all the moves, are the Wizards any closer to winning? 

When the NBA’s upcoming season begins next month, Washington will find itself in a loaded, talented-packed Eastern Conference. Though the Wizards seemed to improve, so did the teams that the Wizards will have to leap to make the postseason. The Cleveland Cavaliers traded for star Donovan Mitchell. The Atlanta Hawks gave up three first-round picks for Dejounte Murray. The New York Knicks gave guard Jalen Brunson a $100 million deal. 

And those are just the clubs on the margins. Contenders like Boston and Milwaukee remain powerhouses. 

At a pre-training camp press conference Tuesday, Sheppard stopped short of predicting a playoff berth. That’s the goal, he said, but to do so, the executive said the Wizards would “have to see the improvement on the defensive end” first. 

“I think we addressed that in the summer, (but you) find out in the winter what you did in the summer,” Sheppard said. “These players are going to have to prove that they are worth what we believe that they are by getting it done on the floor. … I just want to see the improvement that we believe is already happening.”

The Wizards are coming off a season that was far from good defensively. Washington had the league’s sixth-worst defensive rating (113.6) — even worse than the year prior, despite hiring a defensive-minded coach in Wes Unseld Jr. The poor defense led to a disappointing 35-47 record, made worse by the collapse that followed a promising 10-3 start. 

But in diving into the numbers, Unseld found areas to be encouraged. The Wizards, he said, limited opponents to the fewest 3-point attempts in the NBA. They forced opponents to shoot the most mid-range baskets per game, too. That sort of shot profile is ideal for a modern defense, and Unseld seemed encouraged his team could build on those strengths. 

Still, Unseld highlighted other flaws that held the defense back. He particularly mentioned the Wizards need to be better at protecting the restricted area, where teams shot 67.9% last season — the third-best rate in the NBA. 

The Wizards hope that players like big man Kristaps Porzingis, acquired at the trade deadline, will provide rim protection, while guards like Wright and Morris help prevent teams from driving to the paint at will. Unseld said the Wizards have made tactical adjustments to their defense to fix things, as well.

“A marginal gain in a number of areas,” Unseld said, “will hopefully equal significant gain overall.”

Before the season, Unseld and his staff will have to determine lineups and roles. Sheppard said “nothing is guaranteed” for this year’s roster, adding he wants players to earn their minutes every night. 

Unseld called the starting small forward competition “wide open.” Barton and third-year wing Deni Avdija are likely the main players in the mix, while Kyle Kuzma, Rui Hachimura and Corey Kispert can also play there if needed. 

The Wizards have less than a month until tip-off, when Washington opens the season in Indiana on Oct. 19. Before that, Washington will play four preseason games — two of which in Japan, Hachimura’s home country.

Once the season starts, Sheppard stressed the Wizards can’t afford to take nights for granted. Unseld said he believes the “fit” for this year’s team is improved, adding that his players collectively understand “the big picture.”

“You can’t change your destination overnight,” Sheppard said. “You can change your direction by the things that you do. Ultimately, we want to win a championship. To do those things, sometimes you can’t skip steps.”

• Matthew Paras can be reached at mparas@washingtontimes.com.

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